Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Dan Dare - the 2000AD Years

Pat Mills, Massimo Belardinelli, Dave Gibbons & others
Dan Dare - the 2000AD Years volume one (2015)

In his introduction, Garth Ennis writes that while 2000AD's 1977 reinvention of Dan Dare as a generic action hero may have annoyed purists, we all loved him because we were too young to have read the original in Eagle and he was our Dan Dare - the we here equating to my generation. The thing is, I'm not sure this is strictly true. I was myself very much familiar with the earlier Dan Dare through a stack of Eagle annuals inherited from my dad who had read the comic when he was a kid; and even after it had been cancelled, Dan remained sufficiently popular as to warrant his own Fleetway annuals. I still have the one which came out in 1973 reprinting The Red Moon Mystery and Safari in Space; so most of us knew who he was, I would say.

That said, I'm probably just splitting hairs, because the return of Dan Dare was why I started buying 2000AD, and the main reason why I continued to buy it during those first couple of years. I've seen it argued that Dan Dare as Sid Vicious and then Joe Strummer has been somewhat relegated to the basement of comic book history simply because it wasn't very good. After all, this is the Dare who kicks your ass, hangs out with ne-er-do-wells, and says rude words such as stomm and possibly even drokk. In defence of our boy, I've also seen it argued that if you look closely you will notice that the Eagle version of the strip was also badly written juvenile piffle despite those lovely pictures.

Well, I have had a look and it simply isn't true. Rather this seems to be a case of someone being unable to tell the difference between something which is badly written and something which is simply aimed at a fairly young audience. The Hampson and Bellamy Dare may be a little stilted due to having been delivered in a million instalments of just one and three-quarter pages each; and old Dan was stylistically very much of its time, but it never pandered and should at least be credited with concessions made to yer actual proper science and a surprisingly progressive attitude towards persons other than the white, English, Christian, and male. Most notably it didn't seem to require that there be either an explosion or someone firing a gun every three panels.

Tharg's Dare is bewildering and inept by comparison. The stories are vehicular to massive implausible ideas such as the Biogs with their living spaceships, and in terms of plot the stories verge on Scooby Doo levels of thin. No less than two tales in this collection conclude with food gags punning whichever generic menace has been defeated in the preceding panels - one of Dan's crew remarks that he's built up quite a hunger following the team's escape from a desert planet of living sand, and so Bear jokes that he will happily eat anything except a sandwich; and I can even remember a third one of these - a no cauliflower cheese for me zinger which concluded a story presumably scheduled for reprint in the second volume.

Bear is the huge Russian ex-cosmonaut Dan hires as a general puncher of faces. He refers to himself in third person and, like many of the characters, often describes what he's doing for the benefit of the reader - 'Stava! Bear's astro-axe spikes the alien guns,' as we watch him swing the aforementioned nuclear-assisted axe into the mechanism of some alien weapon; in this case a weapon belonging to the Starslayers who live on a planet called Starslay and who are ruled over by their Dark Lord, who actually knows he's a bad guy. I have no idea how or why the axe is nuclear-assisted. It just is, okay?

It's not simply that new things are always rubbish. Tharg's Dan Dare really was a poor effort compared with the original, at least in terms of narrative relationship with its readers. Aside from the name and the fact of his being recognised by the Mekon, he may as well have been Dredger or Hellman or John Probe or any other generically grizzled action hero from a seventies comic; and yet knowing all of the above, I can't help but love this stuff in spite of itself.

The key is, I suppose, the art combined with those previously mentioned massive implausible ideas - the Biog's living technology, the Shepherds, the Two of Verath in his hollow planet, the Roman-style vampires and their heart-shaped spaceships. This stuff once blew my mind on a weekly basis in a way that not even Doctor Who could manage, and so much so that I never noticed how there was hardly a story underneath. Now that I'm fifty, the same tales have lost some of their initial impact, but the shortfall is made up with massive blasts of memory sherbert going off every few panels. Nostalgia alone shouldn't really be enough to save a strip, which is where the art comes in. Belardinelli's figures were often ropey, but you don't really notice here, and he was at his absolute weirdest drawing the Sid Vicious version of Dare in those early progs - bordering on the Hieronymous Bosch of the comic strip; and it looks so fucking amazing that it doesn't seem to matter that the dialogue - mostly bloody awful as it is - should be reduced to something like background music, a sort of word condiment sprinkled across the artwork for the sake of flavour. The same roughly applies to the Dave Gibbons version which, if not quite so visually arresting, has enough of a pleasantly chunky quality to compensate for crappy or even non-existent narrative.

A few years later, a version of Eagle returned and reclaimed Dan Dare for its own. I had a look at the thing, but despite the admittedly bed-wettingly gorgeous art of Ian Kennedy, it seemed like a boy band version of the character, a pointless exercise in recreating the original magic by following the same recipe which failed because the rest of the universe had long since moved on; and this was why Dan Dare worked so well in 2000AD, because I was twelve and it absolutely nailed the spirit of its time, for better or worse.

Having only just found out that Belardinelli is no longer with us, this also comes as a wonderful reminder of just how magnificently weird his art was at its best. I can't help feel that had somebody pushed him in the general direction of a life drawing class or two, he might have been remembered with the sort of reverent tone generally reserved for the likes of Kirby, Ditko and Moebius.

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

New Worlds 157

Michael Moorcock (editor) New Worlds 157 (1965)
Here's another oddity, specifically a magazine, albeit a magazine published as a standard paperback - as I guess were other issues of Moorcock's New Worlds. Someone sent me this through the post, I made a mental note to read it at some point and it went onto the shelves, there to remain unread because I rarely bother with periodicals - which is an explanation of how my brain works rather than some sort of manifesto. I know Fantasy & Science Fiction to be wonderful, and Asimov's and Analog have their moments, but if I read the magazines I'd never find time to read books, and there's so much I still want to read and I don't even know if I'll be alive long enough to get through all of it.

Anyway, New Worlds ran for a long, long time, and was pretty much the English magazine of new science fiction. It had a reputation for innovation, for taking risks on weirdos, and as such is probably directly responsible for at least some degrees of the fame enjoyed by Brian Aldiss, Moorcock himself, Harry Harrison, J.G. Ballard, William Burroughs, and others. There's nothing historically remarkable about this particular issue beyond that it seems typically solid. Colin Fry's Ernie and Langdon Jones' Transient sort of make you wish that at least one of them had gone on to bigger, better publicised things, whoever they were; and Moorcock contributes something which ended up in one of the Jerry Cornelius books, but mostly this serves as a fascinating snapshot of its milieu, an era when science-fiction was something you read, nine times out of ten, which seems a more civilised state of affairs than is presently the case. Being a periodical, there's an editorial concerned mostly with a convention at which fancy dress was still termed fancy dress, and there's a review of Ray Bradbury's newie - Dandelion Wine apparently, and very good it sounds too - and, best of all, a terse advice column written by one Dr. Peristyle, apparently Brian Aldiss in stealth mode.

All I ask of a story is that it tells a story. Why do writers insist on trying to give me more? asks Betty Pierce of Diss, Norfolk.

I suppose the answer is that there are writers who write for the likes of you, madam, Aldiss responds, but the good ones hope to avoid you.


I might have to hunt down a few more of these.

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

I Thought Solihull Was For Snobs

Paul Panic I Thought Solihull Was For Snobs (2015)
I'll always have room for one more punky history book, despite having read some fairly shitty efforts over the years. This effort comes from some bloke who was singer for the Accused. You may not have heard of the Accused and I suppose they might be deemed insignificant in the great scheme of things. They failed to tickle the grown-up charts, but Peel played them, and it sounds like anyone who ever saw them live probably had a decent time, or failing that a memorable one. I myself had heard of them, although I can't quite remember where; but this looked interesting, not least because it details what was going on at the edge of my world, Shipston-on-Stour where I lived when I was growing up as the seventies turned into the eighties. I was about three years behind this lot but there's plenty of common ground.

Could have used an editor, I thought flicking through as it turned up in the mail, picking up on a certain tone and some wacky punctuation of a kind which normally gets on my tits; but it was just a fleeting impression, and is revealed as redundant by firstly the disclaimer of the book having been written in true DIY punk spirit with the author making no apologies for bad grammar, slang, self-indulgence, attitude, bad memory recall, or lack of writing skills; and secondly by the book itself. It's always a pleasure to read any history of any aspect of punk which doesn't waste either pages or brain cells on idiots like Malcolm McLaren, or banging on about Situationism or the sodding Sex Pistols boat trip or boring New York poetry circles; so this one scores highly with me because it really gets to what it was all about, right there on the shop floor with the sheer excitement of forming a band regardless of playing ability, of staying up to catch Peel, of being young and realising there's more to life than the shite Dave Lee sodding Travis was playing on the radio. In fact, this is probably one of the better books I've seen written about punk - at least up there with Stewart Home's Cranked Up Really High, and at the opposite end of the scale to the pointless photographic paving slab written by that knob from Blue Rondo a la Twat.

On a more personal note, it's also kind of thrilling to read something making intimate reference to so many parts of my own teenage landscape - Birmingham and Solihull having been the big bad city for me, Look Hear presented by a young Toyah Willcox, Coventry's Alternative Sounds fanzine, gigs at the Mermaid and Fighting Cocks, bands such as the Photos getting noticed; and there's even a couple of more direct connections - as a paper boy I used to deliver the Daily Telegraph to the home of one of the Ideal Husbands, and then I used to write to David from Urge when he moved to Holland and started recording as Scram Ju Ju, and Jesus - the fanzines I used to churn out back in the nineties were even printed at the same place that did this book. The list could go on but probably shouldn't, and doesn't really even relate to why I found this such a cracking read.

It probably doesn't matter if you weren't there, because Paul Panic was, and he communicates the whole thing as a sort of universal experience which probably wouldn't work half so well had he adopted a more formal tone. What you get has the conversational rhythm of tales related in the pub by a natural wit, so even when he wanders off on some peculiar tangent, it all seems to work and hold together. The account of stuffing forty or fifty friends, fans, and band members in the back of a tiny van and driving them down to Weymouth for a disastrous gig is probably worth the cover price alone, and should be savoured before someone turns it into a self-consciously cute film with Bandersnatch Cucumber and gets it all hopelessly wrong.

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

The Word for World is Forest

Ursula LeGuin The Word for World is Forest (1972)
I realise that James Cameron's Avatar borrows from a great variety of sources - Edgar Rice Burroughs, Dances with Wolves, and the Smurfs to name but three - but it really feels like a massive fucking chunk of it came from this novella, albeit with a few other bits bolted on so as to save the effects guy being stood around all day twiddling his thumbs and looking bored. It's a short novel, really more of a novella, which originally appeared in Harlan Ellison's Again, Dangerous Visions anthology. The story concerns a bunch of industrially motivated human colonists pissing off the natives of a largely arboreal world, and I would guess refers to the historical colonial treatment of native populations in general, particularly in North America and more recently the Amazon, with a sizeable chunk of Vietnam war thrown in. The little guys get treated like shit and so they fight back, and the book carries the kind of ecological message you would probably hope it would carry unless you're some sort of finance-based Republicrat Randian machine consciousness; and it carries the message well, without sermonising or reducing everything to black and white. Having been drawn from the LeGuin spigot, The Word for World is Forest is of course beautifully written in pastoral terms as the sort of rustically poetic folk saga she does so well. My only criticism, I suppose, is that you pretty much know how the story will turn out just from the title and the cover painting even before you've flipped the thing over to read the blurb on the reverse; so although highly readable, it's also kind of short and a little lacking in surprises. Then again, it was written as a long-ish short story and does it's job as such, so I'm not complaining.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Lost in Space

George O. Smith Lost in Space (1960)
Sorry - Will Robinson isn't in any danger here. It's no relation, despite the title. This is another that found its way onto my shelves by virtue of being an Ace Double and therefore Siamese twin to something I wanted to read. Here's the lowdown from the inside front cover:

Commodore Ted Wilson's intuition told him right! He should never have let his fiance√©, Alice Hemingway, take off on Space Liner 79—the flight that fate had singled out to change the destiny of the galaxy!

Once out in deep space the ship's engines failed and Alice found herself stranded in a tiny lifeship with two amorous men. Besides this, there was no way for Wilson to find them except by combing the light-years of all space for tiny craft.

'I'm guessing that probably wasn't written by a woman,' my wife observed as I read it out loud to her, and of course she's right. I don't know much about George O. Smith beyond that he wasn't a woman, had quite a lot of stuff published in Astounding Science Fiction, and was a member of a men-only literary banqueting club alongside Isaac Asimov and Lester del Rey, according to Wikipedia. Additionally, I'm inclined to wonder whether he may have served in either the army, navy or air force. This I deduce from the slightly stilted social interaction of his jet-setting characters, even if a few of them may occasionally have the top button undone with the cap set at a jaunty angle.

Lost in Space reads like a poor cousin to Asimov, although Isaac could usually pull it off with a little more style than this - or at least leave readers feeling as though they've learnt something. Wooden characters go through the motions, and Alice Hemingway keeps her hand securely on her ha'penny whilst marooned in the void with her randy boss and a vaguely dashing spaceliner pilot. The creakier material of this sort alternates with unexpected flourishes of hard science, or possibly firm but slightly pliable science given that all the discussion of particles and infrawaves feel sciency rather than actually informative, and I wouldn't swear that any of it is genuinely based on anything. There's a fairly enjoyable paragraph about the infinite mass achieved at speeds faster than light warping space, but I've a feeling Smith was just making it up. He just isn't the communicator that Asimov was.

While Alice concentrates on not being entered by her fellow castaways, Commodore Ted Wilson discusses search vectors, and the whole thing is observed from afar by a warlike alien space fleet. This is the first time they've encountered humans, and debate rages as to whether they should kill, eat, enslave, or buddy up to their new cosmic neighbours. What's disconcerting is that the debate rages more or less like a bunch of pipe-smoking advertising executives hanging around in a bar, necessitating one of Smith's slightly peculiar asides to explain how he's translated the conversation into terms we readers will understand, because obviously they wouldn't be speaking English, and when using expressions such as top dog or cool cat, the animals to which they refer are simply the closest alien equivalents to those with which we are familiar. No less disconcerting are the fairly frequent references to ancient history. Those future people sure spend a lot of time thinking about how much everything has changed since the fifties.

She decided to drop the discussion as pointless, so headed for the bathroom. A hot shower and a quick tubbing of her underclothing were on her mind. Her garments, of course, would dry instantly. She had to smile a little. To think that a hundred years ago women thought something they called nylon was wonderful because it was fairly quick-drying! Not instantaneous, of course, as was the material of which her lingerie was made.

Yes. Just imagine.

Lost in Space is fairly readable, for all that it accidentally punches itself in the face about once every five pages, and Smith patently wasn't without talent so much as an inability to recognise his own strengths and write to them accordingly; but all the same, I'm glad it wasn't any longer.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

The White Mountains

John Christopher The White Mountains (1967)
Annoyingly it turns out that I almost read this one when I was a kid, back when I belonged to the age group for which it was specifically written. I almost read it in so much as that I borrowed it from Kenilworth public library. My granddad used to take me there presumably in the hope of my developing a taste for books; and I did develop a taste for books, but not necessarily for reading them if they had no pictures inside and weren't related to something on telly, as this one didn't and wasn't, leaving just the starkly vivid cover of the Hamish Hamilton hardback to imprint itself on my slightly guilty consciousness.

As I read The White Mountains it took me a while to recognise it as the thing I once almost read, which I recalled only as a cover and a vague hint of heavily recycled H.G. Wells. I understood there had been a television series made of it at some stage, but that was after I left home so I never saw the thing.

Anyway, this book is fucking great, and I really wish I'd made the effort to read it back then. The inspiration drawn from H.G. Wells  is massive and obvious in so much as that the Tripods are his war machines lifted wholesale from War of the Worlds - inscrutable three legged mechanical alien tosspots differentiated only by their tendency to enslave rather than to exterminate - and yet the setting they inhabit is so distinctly its own thing that you don't really notice. This could be the sequel to Wells' story about three hundred years down the line had a few of the Tripods developed some sort of space Lemsip, but it doesn't really matter that it isn't.

The White Mountains describes future humanity reduced to a semi-feudal, effectively mediaeval existence as told through the eyes of its protagonist, a young boy soon to be Capped. Capping is what happens in this world when you reach the age of fourteen, it being some sort of implant performed by the Tripods designed to keep you compliant and docile as you reach maturity. Naturally our boy is suspicious and decides to run away from home, to seek the White Mountains where, so he's been told, humanity lives free beyond the reach of the invaders; and the White Mountains turn out to be somewhere in France, thus entailing all sorts of moderately harrowing adventures as our boy crosses land and even sea to get there.

The message is simple and is delivered without either sermonising or, conversely, any doubt of there being a message, namely concerning a healthy distrust of authority and the value of asking questions. This applies to the Tripods, but more so to the ruling human classes, those sanctioned by the aliens. Whilst the Tripods are terrible, they remain remote and mysterious, more in the line of an explanation for the shape of this blindly obedient society than as your traditional massed forces of alien evil. One of the most challenging choices to be made comes when our guy realises how much easier it would be to settle comfortably amongst the French aristocracy with whom he takes shelter.

I had travelled a long road since leaving the village, not only in hard reality but in my attitude towards people. More and more I had come to see the Capped as lacking what seemed to me the essence of humanity, the vital spark of defiance against the rulers of the world. And I had despised them for it—despised even, for all their kindness and goodness to me, the Comte and Comtesse.

But not Eloise. I had thought her free, like myself. I might even have come to the idea—its beginnings, I think, were in my mind already—that when we set off once more for the White Mountains, there might not be three of us, but four. All this was rendered futile by the sight of her bare head. I had come to think of her as my friend: perhaps more. But now I knew that she belonged, irretrievably, body and soul, to the enemy.

It's a children's book as children's books should be - in my opinion - defined by a focus on the sort of characters with whom younger readers will most likely identify without any sacrifice in quality, without talking down to anyone, and with some sort of actual content, something important which is communicated beyond just having a load of trainee wizards flying around for the sake of it.

I'm pretty sure I would have enjoyed this as much when I was eight as I have done at fifty, and had I done so it might have got me into the habit of reading something other than Terrance fucking Dicks, but never mind.

The one I almost read.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Bug Jack Barron

Norman Spinrad Bug Jack Barron (1969)
I vaguely recall having been put off Spinrad by one of his short stories in an old New Worlds collection, and put off mainly by prose quite clearly written by a man wearing sunglasses and a beret, smoking one of those LSD cigarettes and listening to jazz - I say man but I really mean some cat; and yet it is this same be bop mangling of language which makes Bug Jack Barron such a great book. Bug Jack Barron is a TV show in which viewers are invited to call in on their futuristic vidphones and bug the host - Jack Barron - about whatever political issue of the day might be bothering them. Barron then vidphones the person or politician responsible live on air and gives them a hard time, and the viewing figures for the show are such that only an idiot would pretend to be otherwise engaged when Barron calls. The book moves slowly in terms of events, taking its time to pick over numerous moral quandaries and to establish an entirely plausible future more or less resembling the present but for a few minor details; yet it doesn't feel at all slow, its first person testimony tearing along with the breakneck pace of a Stan Brakhage film somehow comprising a stream of consciousness rendered as highly caffeinated hipster jargon - James Joyce and William Burroughs collaborating on an episode of Mad Men with a whole load of Lenny Bruce and Marshall McLuhan thrown in for flavour.

As the elevator stopped, Barron looked at the nameless girl clutching his hand, saw the honey-blonde-dyed hair big brown eyes slightly-prosthetic made-for-balling body, saw the latest in interminable line of honey-blonde big-eyed not-Saras, felt pattern enmeshing him like fate, like creature plugged into Kismet-relay circuitry, felt stronger-than-lust weaker-than-love thing for the nameless girl, girl hungry for living-colour image-prick of world-famous Jack Barron.

It can be disorientating but it's really worth hanging on in view of where the story takes us.

I noticed a few Biblical parallels - Jack's symbolic crucifixion and himself and Sara as Adam and Eve tempted by the serpentine Benedict Howards. Actually, they're hard to miss.

'Think about what that means every morning when you wake up, knowing it's all there forever—the way food tastes, the way a woman's body feels, the smell of the air—all of it yours, and all of it forever. Wouldn't you sell your soul for that? Wouldn't anyone? Because you wouldn't need a soul to go somewhere and play a harp when you croak. You'd have it all, right here on terra firma. Forever.... Forever....'

'You sound like you're about to breathe fire and brimstone and ask me to sign a contract in blood,' Barron remarked dryly.

Bug Jack Barron is one of those striking a deal with the devil tales, so I'm sure such imagery is intentional, and the context is capitalist society, specifically the media-driven American version with the significant and still very much relevant problem of morality being defined by the highest bidder. As is probably obvious from the above quote, millionaire industrialist Benedict Howards develops a process which facilitates immortality and is busily buying up senators and congressmen whilst killing at least one president who refuses to play ball. Contrast is provided with snapshots of black America, those getting shat upon at the bottom of the heap for whom Jack Barron has become a televisual campaigner, injustice being his bread and butter in terms of ratings. Howards' brand of immortality comes with a terrible price - as the cliché has it - at which point the novel veers off in the general direction of stomach churning body horror, or at least enough so as to make its point quite clear.

I dislike body horror, generally speaking, having thus far failed to find myself in any way excited by the thought of someone having a penis sewn onto their face - that being the level of thematic thrust the genre so often seems to employ in lieu of actually bothering to tell a fucking story. If anyone feels that such a view represents some kind of censorship or perhaps a violation of their human rights, screw you and grow the fuck up. Winky face. Winky face.

Anyway, Bug Jack Barron does its job extremely well without quite sticking fingers down the readers throat, which is nice; and given the present state of politics and society as it is here in America, this book is at least as relevant as it ever was, arguably more so, and not even the author snapping his fingers with an mmm mmm yeah every few paragraphs quite manages to date it. In fact, when Spinrad names Reagan as having been president - as he does at several intervals - it blends so seamlessly with the landscape that I had to remind myself of this having been written in the sixties.

Possibly the only detail which Spinrad seems to have passed over is the role of the media which here appears less insidious than has been the case in recent years; although passages such as the following suggest this is more to do with the novel focussing on the wider society than any oversight on the author's part:

He put a razor in the last word, signalled to Vince to give him three-quarters screen and zingo, Howards was a scared little twerp cowering below him in the hotseat. He suddenly realised that to the hundred million people on the other side of the screen, what they saw there was reality, reality that was realer than real because a whole country was sharing the direct sensory experience; it was history taking place right before their eyes, albeit non-event history that existed only on the screen. A strange chill went through him as for the first time he got a full gut-reality flash of the unprecedented power wielded by his image on the screen.

Grazing the internet, I find that this seems to be one of those novels which divides people in so much as that some have apparently hated it, even described it as unreadable and slow. As is probably obvious, I belong in the other camp. I suppose my only criticism would be that I've personally never seen the appeal of immortality, but then that isn't really what the book is about, so it's not a problem.